4/ Special People
When people are trying to reach other people (6 degrees of separation), they don’t go to the best-connected people; they go to the people who have something in common with the target person (language, geography, profession, etc.). Common sense says that reaching other people through high-status people (i.e., via hierarchies) is the right approach. Apparently, it’s not.
The “great man” view of history is also reflected in such concepts as “superspreaders” (especially relevant during the COVID era), “influencers”, star CEOs, etc. – an assumption that there can be one individual’s disproportionally high impact on the world. In many cases it turns out to be a matter of perception than reality.
Social influence is mostly subconscious, arising out of the subtle cues that we receive from our friends and neighbours, and not necessarily “turning to them” at all. Our perceptions of influence reflect our understanding of the hierarchy, but usually have nothing to do with it.
Influence can’t be measured directly, and marketers and researchers are using proxy metrics like the number of likes (interactions) and friends (network size); the core assumption here is that everyone gets influenced in the same manner (which is obviously not true).
Influencing other people is possible thanks to the phenomenon of social contagion. It’s the idea that information, and potentially influence, can spread along network ties like an infectious disease. The beauty of contagion that gives the law of the few plausibility: indirect influence is more powerful than the direct one.
Influence requires two hypotheses to be mashed together: some people are more influential than others, and the influence of these people is greatly magnified by some contagious process that generates social epidemics.
However, when influence is spread via some contagious process, the outcome depends far more on the overall structure of the network than on the properties of the individuals that trigger it. There has to be a critical mass of easily influenced people who influence other easy-to-influence people. In the right condition an almost random person can trigger a bigger avalanche than any influencer can.
In hindsight these people are considered to have been in the right time at the right place with the right message – but of course, backwards reasoning can explain anything.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the possibility for a large-scale cascade of, say, retweets is far less probably than the sum of smaller-scale cascades by less “popular” influencers who don’t charge arm and leg for the convenience of being a “single point of contact”. Add diversification to the mix, and it really looks like large influencers are way overrated.
The thinking that “X happened because a few special people made it happen” is again an example of circular reasoning.